The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Pentecost as the Reversal of Babel

They were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed as resting upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–4)

Marking the end of the Easter cycle, Pentecost Sunday commemorates the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of flames to the Apostles, gathered together. Thus inspired, the apostles began to preach to a crowd of the Jews who had traveled to Judea for Shavuot (the concluding festival of the grain harvest). These people spoke varied native languages of their diaspora; yet, the miracle of Pentecost is that the Galilean apostles were able to make themselves understood to all. This “Birthday of the Church” was the first time that the gospel was preached to such large crowds.

The event fulfilled Christ’s promise to his followers that they would receive the gift of the Spirit some time after his body leaves the earth. He’d asked them to remain together in Jerusalem so that they could do so as a group. Previously, they would have been familiar with the references in the Jewish scriptures regarding God’s promises to “pour out the spirit on all flesh”, particularly the one in Joel that Peter quotes in his sermon here. The quote comes to Peter readily in the aftermath of the amazing miraculous, mystical experience he’s just had, but I wonder about the apostles’ state of mind in the days following Jesus’ departure and before the Holy Spirit was revealed - the uncertain, liminal time; nobody knew how long it would last and how it would end. The time of extraordinary hope, and crushing doubt. Today, we are living in similar times.

Celebrating the first fruits of the grain harvest, Shavuot was the feast that occurred 50 days after Passover, which recalled the exodus of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt. Still celebrated by the observing Jewish people all over the world, this year, it falls on May 28 - 30, lining up almost perfectly with our Pentecost. The number 50 is important in Jewish, and subsequently Christian, mysticism, as it stands for eternity and heavenly fulfillment, pointing to the reality beyond the temporal and material confines of this world. Pentecost, by the way, is simply the name that the Greek-speaking Jews used for Shavuot that comes from the root for 50. Today, some believe that Shavuot/Pentecost also celebrated God's gift of the ten commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, and many Christians enthusiastically make use of this symbolism: if under the new covenant, Passover celebrates the exodus from the bondage of sin and death, then Pentecost fulfills the coming of the "new law" of grace, as enabled by the Spirit. While this makes some sense metaphorically, a lot of evidence (too much to cover here) points to Shavuot acquiring this meaning only as a much later Rabbinical development.

Thus, rather than contrasting the story from Acts with the giving of the Law, I find it more interesting to look at its other anti-type, often forgotten - the story of the Tower of Babel. I got this idea from the traditional Orthodox prayers that are sung as part of the Pentecostal liturgy at which, interestingly, the faithful kneel for the first time since Easter. These prayers refer to Pentecost as the act of God whereby he reverses the chaos of Babel, unites all nations in his Spirit, and gathers the whole universe into his “net” through the work of the inspired apostles.

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If, as one, people speaking the same language have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Gen 11:1–9)

This myth is shared by many cultures. For a beautiful contemporary interpretation, you might enjoy reading "Tower of Babylon"; a science fantasy novelette by American writer Ted Chiang (1990, reprinted in the 2002 anthology, “Stories of Your Life and Others”). In the Bible, it appears as a bizarre, incomplete snippet of a larger narrative - the motive to build the Tower is not clear, it doesn't jive with modern historical linguistics, and it even contradicts Genesis 10, in which the post-Noahic world included diverse nations that descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, each speaking their own languages. I am not sure whether this is a story about pride or fear - a challenge to God similar to that in the Garden, or a safeguard against the second flood? In any case, as it tends to happen, the people find themselves in quite “a pickle” as a result. One thing is certain: once God inflicts an impediment to their communication, they become disunited, and consequently, unable to continue to build a conduit towards God.

The “good news” as declared by Pentecost, is that the Holy Spirit enables us to comprehend and communicate, and be united. God actually does allow us to resume the ever-ongoing project of building an edifice that unites the heavens and the earth - that is, the Church. And unlike the Tower of old, our Church is built as wide as it’s tall. I’m quite certain that in the Pentecost story, the Spirit enabled the apostles not only to utter the foregn words and syntax, but also convey cultural nuances and speak with compassion.Therefore, the true “first fruits” of God’s New Creation is the gift of mutual understanding, especially when it comes to exchanging our experiences of faith and spirituality, as well as transcend racial, cultural, generational, and class barriers.

And so today, when we, too, strive to understand each other, become good listeners, develop patience for each other, and avoid rushing to judgement, we further God’s kingdom on earth as exemplified in the book of Acts. After all, in this story, the coming of the Holy Spirit is no longer portrayed by an amorphous cloud (as it was in Exodus, or even at Transfiguration), nor by the tongues of flames merely floating in the air, but by their very action of coming to rest on the disciples. May they continue to grace our own hearts forever. Amen.

Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder; 1563)